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June 10, 2010

Back to the future

Although many have been predicting the death of the PC for a while now, desktop virtualisation has yet to catch on to the same extent as server or storage virtualisation. But could that soon change? Steve Evans investigates.

By Steve Evans

It has been difficult to avoid the subject of virtualisation over the last few years: Server virtualisation projects that increase utilisation from 10% to around 80%, storage virtualisation implementations that save thousands of pounds a month and network virtualisation initiatives that reduce hardware and software costs while improving performance.

But where does the humble desktop fit in? A recent survey by Citrix revealed that UK firms are big adopters of virtualisation but late to the party when it comes to virtualising their desktops. While around 70% of firms in the UK use some form of virtualisation technology, just over half (52%) have embraced the desktop version. Why are firms more restrained when it comes to desktop virtualisation?

“I think there are two primary reasons,” Scott Herold, lead architect, virtualisation business at Quest Software, tells CBR. “End users are very particular about performance – if they perceive that their applications are running slower, they get loud. They will let you know when you push them into something they don’t like or is different from what they are used to. Second, the storage that is required at the back-end is much more expensive than a $100 hard drive I can buy and put into a desktop – it’s ten times the cost.”

While many firms are not yet open to the benefits of desktop virtualisation, there are some industries that have seen more uptake. While acknowledging that the space is “emerging”, VMware CEO Paul Maritz explains that some are embracing it for the security boost it can provide.

“To date it’s largely been focused on certain industries that have been security- and control-driven, such as financial services where for regulatory reasons they didn’t want any data residing on the end device, all the data had to reside in the data centre,” he tells CBR. “They’ve been big adopters of using virtualisation as a way of running client code in their data centres and projecting it out to so-called thin devices sitting on people’s desktops.”

Maritz added that having control over data at all times – knowing where it is residing – will be key to increasing desktop virtualisation. The idea behind it makes sense; a centralised repository holding a user’s information, apps, data and settings is more secure and easier to manage. If that user can log on to the desktop from any Internet-enabled device they can work from anywhere.

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It also adds flexibility to the IT department, Maritz adds. “The desktop today is the mechanism through which the IT department provides a set of resources to a user, applications, data and so on. In the future IT doesn’t want that desktop to belong to any one particular device; they don’t want it to be the unique property of a particular piece of hardware or even an operating system. They want the container to be somewhere to put resources, somewhere that can adapt.”

Thin or Zero?

In the early days of computing, before components became affordable for the masses, users would sit in front of a terminal that was connected to a big machine somewhere else that would do all the processing. That’s where the industry is heading again, believes John Kish, CEO of zero client vendor Pano Logic.

Zero client is another step on from thin clients. The user essentially sites in front of a screen that is connected to the network. There is no operating system, no processor, no software, no firmware and no memory, everything that makes it run runs through a data centre.

“If you force all the computing into the data centre it’s more efficient, it reduces IT admin workload and is cheaper to manage and maintain because it’s centralised. You’re moving spend away from the end point and into the data centre, money is going on things like storage rather than PCs,” Kish tells CBR, adding that the total cost of buying a PC can range from $650 to $750, including elements such as assets, software and management costs. A zero client is likely to be a total investment of between $500-600, Kish says.

Kish used to run Wyse, who recently announced a tie-up with Citrix to offer a zero client platform. According to the firms Wyse Xenith offers no local configuration or management has very little attack surface, protecting it from malware and is capable of launching a full Windows desktop in seconds.

“Desktop virtualisation and cloud computing will render the old PC hardware model obsolete, says Tarkan Maner, CEO at Wyse. “With the introduction of the Wyse Xenith zero client, the first adaptable, no-compromise, Citrix HDX-fluent zero client, we’ve realised a vision to deliver the benefits of high-performance virtual computing without the limitations associated with PC computing.”

While Pano Logic’s Kish won’t go as far as predicting the death of traditional desktops, he does think that virtualisation will become a viable alternative for many firms. “I’m not going to say we’ll replace PCs but it will have a big impact. It will be picked up in the short term because it makes economic sense,” he says.

The road to virtualisation

One company that has picked up desktop virtualisation is Newcastle College, a large educational organisation based in the north east of England. It has over 40,000 students, nearly 4,000 staff and, due to a number of acquisitions and mergers in the last few years, operates across 100 sites. Following rapid expansion the group found itself with a large, disparate IT infrastructure, much of which was out of date.

The company needed a major overhaul to meet its aim of a more standardised, centralised IT infrastructure. “The challenge was to take all these issues we were facing and encompass them in a manageable environment that would help us move forward,” says Dionisis Kalimeris, project manager at Newcastle College Group.

“We could have followed a mainstream way [a traditional PC-based infrastructure], but that would have cost us £8m, or we could have done nothing, which was a no-go area, or we could moved ahead. We looked at what technologies were available and looked at what we now know as cloud computing, but what was then just an idea, a vision, a challenge – to offer the same desktop and laptop experience across our sites.”

The project began three years ago, when Newcastle’s infrastructure consisted of around 9,500 PCs and Macs. In 2009 it began deploying VMware View to over 1,000 staff across all the Group’s divisions, at a cost of just £800,000. Calls to the IT department have dropped, which has enabled the IT team to focus on more strategic operations. But one of the main benefits has been centralised management, which means things like software updates and patches are pushed out centrally.

“I couldn’t offer a service that was anything less than we had with the physical legacy system,” Kalimeris adds. “If you get a laptop it will be fantastic but maybe three months down the line the performance deteriorates, the same goes with service. I had to provide a virtual environment that was available 24/7 from anywhere.”

The project has prompted savings of over £7m at the group. “What could have been a time intensive, expensive, IT integration project has proved quick, pain free and, most importantly of all, has proved great value for money. Not only does our IT team now have a lot more time to concentrate on strategic projects to help drive the business forward, rather than worrying about maintenance issues, but we’ve actually saved ourselves over £7m which is quite staggering,” says Neil Gow, group IT development manager, Newcastle College Group.

Although this project was driven by a need to be more efficient, VMware’s Maritz says that is not the norm. “Today most people who want desktop virtualisation are driven by security and control issues rather than costs. But we’re seeing a second wave of customers who want security and control as well as the costs. If you do desktop virtualisation in a naïve manner it can end up costing you more because you’re going from storing your information on a cheap storage device to storing it on a very expensive box,” he says.

The criticisms of desktop virtualisation – that latency is an issue and the increased power requirements in the data centre will actually increase costs – are also wide of the mark, Kish believes. “I think [network latency] was an issue five years ago, but not so much now. Systems are highly resilient these days – how often do networks tend to go down? As for power, servers are much more efficient than PCs and a Pano Logic device uses five watts of power, compared to 150 watts for a typical desktop.”

Newcastle College Group, facts and figures

40,000 students
4,000 members of staff
100 sites across the UK
9,500 PCs and Macs before virtualisation project
£8m potential cost of new PC-based infrastructure
£800,000 cost of installation of VMware View
40% of staff can now work remotely
99.8% availability


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